Steampunk Costuming: The Embroidered Corset
This is an exciting moment for me. For months, I have not had time to make more than a skirt or a dress. And since I haven’t been making anything particularly interesting, it hasn’t seemed worthwhile to put in the time to write about it here. But this weekend I found myself all of a sudden with lots of reasons to procrastinate, and that meant finally finishing a project that I started something like a year and a half ago: a corset with hand-embroidered, vein-inspired patterns. I can’t wait to wear it to Maker Faire, and get some proper pictures!
As an aside: I have an interesting artistic relationship with corsetry, because I really like making corsets, and I often wear them as parts of my costumes, and since I’ve made a few and worn a few I know more than most people about proper construction and fit. But I also am fully aware of, and troubled by, the gender politics they symbolize. That, however, is a matter for another post.
BUT. Anyway. I’m going to start from the beginning for simplicity’s sake.
The beginning is to trace and cut out a pattern. Kids, always trace your patterns! Because you never know when you’ll need a bigger size. Or a smaller size. You don’t want to have to go out and buy another pattern, because you cut the one you could have used to shreds. Seriously, investing in some tracing paper was one of the best decisions of my costume-making life.
I sketched out the design to embroider on the pattern pieces, because it let me use an eraser. I used two colors to make it asymmetrical, so I could tell them apart. Unfortunately, I used two colors that are sort of similar, and I didn’t quite account for seam allowances. This comes up later.
Cut pattern pieces in satin:
And transfer the sketched out embroidery pattern onto it. I didn’t have a light table so I used a window instead.
Then cut pieces in coutil. Coutil is magical. It is like denim or heavy canvas, but thinner and sturdier. It is what gives a corset its squish. People think it’s the bones, because they are made of steel, but really it’s the coutil. My first corset had only one layer of coutil. It was all right, but the bones popped out of the channels after about a year of wear. From now on, I will always use two layers of coutil.
So, line each piece with coutil. And I finish the edges while I’m at it, because I’ll be handling them like mad while I embroider and a frayed corset is not a strong corset.
And embroider! I was really bad at embroidery to start. It didn’t help that I was working with a fabric that is sturdy enough it can take two inches off of your waist. But I had a few days of talks to sit through at the genetics retreat, and I think better when my hands are moving (it’s why I usually take ridiculously detailed notes), so eventually I figured out that embroidery thing and had ten embroidered pieces.
I basted them together, thinking I would test how well my pattern had stood up. Turns out, it didn’t stand up at all. The reason should have been obvious: I hadn’t accounted for a seam allowance when I drew out my pattern. Next time, embroidered corset. Next time I’ll get you. I had to take out and redo a few places where the edges just didn’t match. But it wasn’t the end of the world.
Then I waited, like, nine months.
And then I cut out some more coutil! Like I said before, two layers, for strength and durability.
All right. I finally had the pieces for my corset. (Seriously, the hard part was over.) The final assembly is pretty straightforward. First, a busk. Busks are the extra-sturdy front piece that serves two purposes. (1) make it look like you don’t have a belly, or in my case, any curves whatsoever, and (2) securely close the corset in the front. A busk is made of two extra-thick pieces of boning, with fasteners bolted in. One half has loops, the other has little jutty-outy-bits. And each half gets sewn into the inside of the corset, between the two layers of coutil.
For the half with loops, I mark everything and then sew a dotted line along the front. Then fix everything in place with another seam on the other side of the busk.
For the half with the jutty-outy-bits, I sew a seam like usual, then use an awl or a seam ripper or something else to make little holes for the posts to stick through. Then I wrestle with the coutil until they’re all poking through, and sew up the other side.
From then on out, it’s pretty straightforward. Sew a boning channel as marked on the pattern, or maybe two, then sew a seam between two pieces (and add a boning channel there for good measure). I sew the boning channels and add boning as I go, and I alternate sides, so I know I have some symmetry in which lengths of boning I use in which channels. It takes a little bit of care to make sure that the pieces all line up right, but it goes quite quickly.
And before you know it, you have what looks a lot like a corset! Now it just needs edging and laces!
I decided to use button holes rather than eyelets in my corset because (1) I like the relatively smoother look of button holes, and (2) my machine has an automatic button hole setting and I am lazy. Mark them off at an even interval, and start sewing button holes!
And then realize that your boned corset is taller than the hole in your sewing machine, and curse, and turn the corset around so you can reach all the button holes.
And, edging! Edging is easy: bias tape around the outside. The only thing to be careful of is that the bones are inside your seam allowance here; if they aren’t, the sewing machine will start screaming unpleasant things: even if it can go through a seam with two layers of satin and four of coutil, it probably can’t punch through steel. Probably.
And that’s it! Put away the sewing machine! (Or don’t, because the only table in my apartment is more of a craft table than a dining table anyway.)
Now: lacing. Getting the lacing right is important for a couple reasons. First of all, proper lacing makes it easier on the laces by reducing the friction between the corset and the laces. It also allows me to lace tighter, AND if I do it right, I can put my corset on and get it reasonably tight all by myself. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t easier with someone else pulling the laces behind my back, or that they can’t get it tighter than I can, but really, having a bit of a larger waist is a sacrifice I’m willing to make in order to be a real grownup and DRESS MYSELF.
There are two principles of proper lacing. First: the crosses the lacing makes should be either completely in front of or completely behind the corset. This way, the two edges of the corset will be able to touch without pinching the lacing. This is what reduces friction and allows tighter lacing.
Second: include a loop a bit more than halfway down, at about waist level, that you will use to pull the corset tight. If you try to lace from the bottom or the top, it’s a total pain.
A corset like this is meant to stay laced all the time. I have another corset, which is more Renn-faire inspired, and it laces up the front and every time I put it on or take it off I need to completely unlace/relace it. Thank heavens for front-closing busks, because that is a PAIN. And I lose corset laces for that one all the time.
And then it’s just tacking the edging down (I use a slip stitch), and it’s done! Really truly!
The awkward thing is that while I could totally put on this corset without assistance, I couldn’t get a half-decent picture without assistance. So here’s a picture of the corset on my dress form instead, where it doesn’t look quite right (my dress form is slightly larger than I am and much less squishy), but you can get a sense for the finished product!